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John Baldessari: The Conceptual Explorer

“I think when I’m doing art,” Baldessari once reflected, “I’m questioning how to do it.” That wasn’t the case when he started out. At the beginning, he was just plain perplexed. It was the early 1950s, and he was studying in California. He majored in art, minored in literature, but by the end of his college degree he felt he was no nearer understanding how to be an artist. How to do it? He decided he needed more training. He needed to follow the same path that artists had traversed before him – acquiring technique and professionalism. So he mastered more styles; he started to paint like those he admired, Matisse and Cézanne; he mastered yet more styles; he became confused. He decided to drive out daily to the cliffs of La Jolla and paint whatever inspired him. Surely, this would force inspiration. It didn’t.

You could say that success only finally came to Baldessari when he accepted failure. When he decided to stop training, stop straining to be an artist. It was around that time, while teaching night school, that he came across a sheet of advice on how to become an artist. Realizing, from his own experience, how absurd that very general advice was, he thought that he might put these cliché ideas to work in an even more absurd and direct way. With that in mind, he made text-paintings such as Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (1966-8). He then began to wonder if, maybe, art could be about the everyday, about the radically simple.

Perhaps art could be – had to be – ordinary, if it was to continue to matter. So he began to take photographs from the window of his car – driving with one hand, shooting pictures with the other. He transferred the images to canvas and coupled them with simple texts. One picture, Econ-O-Wash (1967-8) shows a car wash glimpsed through passing traffic; below it reads “Econ–O-Wash. 14th and Highland. National City California.” Perhaps art could be made with the slightest of gestures: the video piece I Am Making Art (1971) shows the artist reciting the titular phrase as he makes nothing more than a series of simple arm movements. Perhaps art could be just, well, pointing at things: the painter Al Held had once remarked that that was all Conceptual Art amounted to, so Baldessari responded with a series of paintings in which fingers point, enigmatically, at objects. Perhaps art could be a matter of gathering up the images in the world and rearranging them – for aren’t there already enough images, without artists adding more? And that, in a sense, has been Baldessari’s belief since the late 1970s and 1980s, when he started to make the photo-works for which he is now best known.

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